NFC South Reporter
The Bucs’ playoff loss at Detroit on Sunday means another offseason has arrived in Tampa, with huge decisions looming that will play a key role in whether the Bucs are seen as favorites to win a fourth straight division title in 2024.
First and foremost, the Bucs are in substantially better salary-cap health than they were a year ago. They were $57 million over the cap this time last year and now are about $44 million under, which is to say they’re $101 million better off. That equates to about 42% of the league’s expected $242 million cap.
Having said that, $44 million can go fast. We will lay out the offseason ahead, from free agency to potential moves to create more salary-cap space to the draft and more.
Free agency: Mayfield, Evans, Winfield at the top
As the Bucs try to keep their core intact for 2024, they have 18 unrestricted free agents and decisions to make in less than two months before free agency and the new league year on March 13. You can argue those 18 are quickly distilled to about six guys likely to command multi-year deals or more than league-minimum-level contracts.
The most coveted among those six is likely safety Antoine Winfield, a first-team All-Pro selection who has been a playmaking catalyst on the defense for four years.
The biggest dominos — guys who could help keep teammates in Tampa, or if they aren’t back, lead to others leaving — are quarterback Baker Mayfield and receiver Mike Evans.
Can the Bucs keep all three? It certainly seems viable. Winfield will command a top-tier safety deal, probably more than the four-year, $64 million contract Jessie Bates got from the Falcons a year ago. If that can’t be worked out, Winfield is a candidate for the franchise tag, which would be about $17 million for one year, but that takes up a larger chunk of cap space than a long-term extension.
How much is Mayfield worth? The former No. 1 overall pick had a career year in a comeback season with the Bucs, resetting career highs for touchdowns and passing yards. He was a great bargain in 2023, earning just $6.8 million with incentives, but he’ll cost a good deal more after re-establishing himself as a solid starter. You could use Geno Smith’s three-year, $75 million deal from last year as a starting point.
Mayfield arguably could get more on the open market, but he has also made it clear he wants to be back and values the stability of finding a team and offense that has embraced him and brought out his best play.
“To get everybody back, there has to be sacrifices made, and this team’s about winning,” Mayfield said Sunday night. “We have a group full of guys that they were all about that. It’s not about individual guys. It’s not about that. So, that’s what’s made it special.”
Mayfield also went out of his way to say if he’s back, he wants Evans back after the two connected for 13 touchdowns, matching the most by any NFL duo. Evans just finished a five-year, $82 million contract but will command more than that, even at age 30. Would three years and $70 million do the trick, with two years guaranteed? There’s some complicated cap accounting related to Evans’ old deal, but because of void years, he would count $12.2 million in dead money toward the Bucs’ 2024 cap if he didn’t re-sign by Feb. 19, about three weeks before free agency.
Now if he re-signs before Feb. 19, some of that dead money stays in 2025-26, so there’s a 2024 cap savings of $7.4 million. Let’s say the Bucs sign Evans to that $70 million deal, give him a minimum salary and $25 million signing bonus, then add two void years to spread out the cap impact. Then his 2024 cap number on the new deal is just $6.2 million, and he takes up less cap space for the Bucs than he would if he signed elsewhere.
The Bucs also have two free-agent linebackers in veteran Lavonte David and Devin White. David turned 34 on Tuesday but continues to play at a high level, leading the Bucs in tackles in his 12th NFL season. David played for just $4.5 million in 2023, and while it’s possible he could retire, he’d be welcomed back and likely at a comparable salary.
White, Tampa’s 2019 first-round pick and a key part of its Super Bowl run in 2020, had asked for a trade this summer, wanting to be paid among the league’s top linebackers. But a disappointing 2023 season has likely lowered his market value. He finished the year splitting time with backup K.J. Britt and will likely end up signing elsewhere.
One more free agent we’ll mention is kicker Chase McLaughlin, another absolute bargain who signed for the league minimum and a $50,000 signing bonus, then had the most accurate field-goal season in Bucs history. He finished 29-for-31 on field goals, his only regular-season misses both blocked, and a perfect 33-for-33 on extra points. He’d logically get closer to $3 million on the open market, but he might take less for a good situation after bouncing around six teams in the previous four years.
There are 12 other unrestricted free agents, but the only true starters would be guards Aaron Stinnie and Matt Feiler, who split the year as the starting left guard. The rest are part-time or special-teams players: DLs Greg Gaines, Will Gholston and Pat O’Connor; RB Chase Edmonds, S Ryan Neal, LS Zach Triner, OLB Cam Gill, T Justin Skule, WR David Moore and QB John Wolford.
How to create more cap space
The Bucs don’t have a ton of easy cuts, because so many of their larger contracts were restructured to make room last year, which means there’s an accelerated hit of dead money if they move on from a player before his deal is up. Even with that, three veterans could be cut loose to free up additional cap flexibility.
Outside linebacker Shaq Barrett set the team’s single-season sack record with 19.5 in 2019 and was a leader on the Super Bowl team, but his production has dropped off in recent years, missing half of 2022 with a torn Achilles tendon. His contract was reworked last summer to change a $16 million base salary to a $1.2 million salary and a $15 million option bonus, which makes it easier for the Bucs to designate him as a post-June 1 cut. Doing so results in $26.7 million in dead money, but it would be split between $9.3 million in 2024 and $17.4 million in 2025. There’s an immediate cap savings of $4.9 million, though the Bucs would have to address their pass rush either in free agency or with a high draft pick.
Center Ryan Jensen has essentially missed the past two seasons with a serious knee injury — he played one game in the 2022 playoffs — and could end up retiring rather than trying another comeback after a lengthy absence. Even though he hasn’t played, the Bucs have restructured his deal enough that his retirement would create $16.6 million in dead money, split between $4.8 million in 2024 and $11.8 million in 2025. It’s not ideal, but it generates a modest cap savings of $1.2 million for 2024.
One more potential cut is receiver Russell Gage, who missed the 2023 season with a knee injury. He had already taken a pay cut to return for a second season and is due to make a non-guaranteed $10 million in 2024. Cutting him would result in $6.8 million in dead money, but also would generate $6.5 million in cap savings.
Make those three moves, and the Bucs have created another $12.6 million in cap space. There are other restructures they can do to create more space as needed, but they might be more careful so as not to carry too much cap debt into future seasons.
Re-signing the key free agents is the Bucs’ top priority, and anyone they don’t keep creates an immediate need to replace a valuable starter. In theory, the Bucs could also work out a long-term extension with tackle Tristan Wirfs, who will play on his fifth-year option at about $18 million this fall but is a young centerpiece they want to build around, even if it means paying him $25 million per year or more.
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The Bucs’ run game ranked last in the league in yards per game and yards per carry, so upgrading their depth behind starter Rachaad White would make sense, as would finding a solid second safety to pair with Winfield. Tampa Bay has the No. 26 pick in this year’s draft, which could go in a number of directions: an edge-rusher to replace Barrett, a defensive back to upgrade the back end, or a receiver, even if Evans and Chris Godwin are back.
Tampa Bay has gotten significant contributions from its past two draft classes — five starters from 2022 and three or four who started as rookies — so the Bucs can expect to be able to fill a few needs in April as well. They have emerged from the post-Tom Brady era in better financial shape after eating about $80 million in dead money in 2023. And while they’re not completely out of the woods on that borrowing, they’re in a much better position to spend smartly to fill needs once they’ve worked to keep their best free agents around.
Greg Auman is FOX Sports’ NFC South reporter, covering the Buccaneers, Falcons, Panthers and Saints. He is in his 10th season covering the Bucs and the NFL full-time, having spent time at the Tampa Bay Times and The Athletic. You can follow him on Twitter at @gregauman.
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